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The United States toughens up testing rules for international travel


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As has been rumored for a few days, the United States government has today announced a number of measures that it says are aimed at protecting Americans from the Delta and Omicron Covid variants this winter. Among the proposals are a tightening up of the testing requirements for all travelers entering the United States from abroad.

What the government has announced

You can find the full announcement here but, in brief, this is what the government says it plans:

Boosters for all adults – more steps will be taken to get booster shots out to the ~100 million Americans eligible for a booster but who have not yet had one.

Vaccinations to protect kids and to keep schools open – essentially this is just more measures to get kids between the ages of 5 and 11 vaccinated.

Expanding free at-home testing for Americans – people with insurance who have so far been able to have any tests taken at pharmacies and clinics will now have at-home tests covered as well. For anyone not covered by insurance, free at-home tests will be distributed through various channels.

Stronger public health protocols for safe international travel – more on that in the next section

Protections in workplaces to keep the economy open – this isn’t so much something that the government is doing as a request from the government for businesses to push forward with vaccination drives and frequent testing.

Rapid response teams to help battle rising cases – the government has said that the same federal aid that was available earlier in the year to help states fight sudden outbreaks will continue to be available this winter.

Supplying treatment pills to help prevent hospitalizations and death – the FDA is yet to approve any of the medications for Covid-19 that are currently in development but the government has committed to ensuring that as and when such medications become available, they are “they are equitably accessible to all Americans, regardless of their income or their zip code”.

Continued commitment to global vaccination efforts – mostly, this is simply restating an existing pledge to donate 1.2 billion doses of the vaccine to countries around the world but it also includes a new pledge to accelerate the delivery of some of these vaccines (the government hopes to deliver 200m doses in the next 100 days)

New travel rules on the way

New testing rules

From “early next week”, the United States will require all inbound international travelers to test within one day of departure, regardless of nationality or vaccination status.

Effectively, the rules that have been in place for non-vaccinated US citizens/legal residents since early November now apply to all travelers eligible to travel to the United States from abroad.

Unvaccinated non-citizens/non-residents continue to be banned from traveling to the United States.

Rules around mask-wearing are to be extended

The government has said that it will continue to require travelers to wear masks during “international or other public travel” (which includes transportation hubs such as airports or indoor bus terminals) through 18 March 2022.

Fines will continue to be doubled from their initial levels for noncompliance with the masking requirements – with a minimum fine of $500 and fines of up to $3,000 for repeat offenders.

Quick thoughts

The rules for international travel could have been made considerably worse so what has been announced today is relatively benign.

The testing requirement for travel to the United States still doesn’t include a PCR test so the considerably cheaper and quicker antigen/lateral flow tests are still accepted. That makes the fact that testing now has to be done within one day of travel and not three, considerably less onerous than it could have been.

Also, the fact that there’s no sign that the government is going to insist that a test is taken within 24 hours of a traveler’s departure time (a test taken at any time on the day before departure will be valid) will make life easier for anyone who doesn’t happen to be traveling from somewhere with easy access to a testing site.

The rumors that there will be a requirement for travelers to take further tests upon arrival and that there could be a quarantine period for travelers have both turned out to be incorrect. On the basis that the government would have had no way to police either of these policies should it have introduced them makes this an unsurprising if welcome development.

Bottom Line

Any travelers eligible to travel to the United States from abroad will soon have to provide proof of a negative Covid test taken no more than one day before their day of departure. The US will continue to allow travelers to use antigen/lateral flow tests to prove their clean bill of health and no further mandatory tests or quarantine periods are being introduced at this point. Considering what the government could have announced today, I think we’ve gotten off lightly.

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